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There aren’t many tourist attractions where you are encouraged to lick the walls. But a salt mine isn’t your typical visitor stop.
If you’re like me and are nearly overcome by a salt craving each afternoon that can only be satisfied with a Costco-sized bag of Doritos, the offer to sample the structure is tempting — until you consider that the reason the dark grey rock salt walls have been polished to a high gloss is decades of touching and rubbing.
Breathing deeply, on the other hand, can only be beneficial. A couple of hours in the air here are supposed to equal a week at the seaside.
And next time you make a dreary crack after lunch about having “to get back to the salt mines,” keep in mind what actual miners accomplished at the Wieliczka Salt Mine, 20 minutes outside the Polish city of Krakow, a thoroughly charming place that went unscathed in the Second World War and today blends Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture with swank shops, an unmistakably Roman Catholic sensibility and some really great food.
The world’s only salt mine designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Wieliczka draws upward of one million tourists a year, and for good reason. Poland’s history is not exactly light fare, so this place is a welcome respite (despite being a place where, you know, workers toiled in dank, brutal conditions).
I was in Krakow this month to finally experience the site of the Auschwitz death camp and find the grave of my grandfather, a soldier killed in the First World War (another story). So a salt mine was a nice change of pace.
Begun in the 13th century to produce a substance so precious that a ton of the “white gold” could buy a village, the mine is known for its Catholic zest. Mining techniques over the centuries are showcased but the real attractions are the eerie labyrinth of tunnels, array of statuary, religious themed friezes and four chapels, one of them cavernous — all hand chiselled by miners from super-hard rock salt that resembles granite.
Miners spent such long hours labouring, they concluded they may as well pray here, too. The mine has been dubbed Poland’s “Underground Salt Cathedral,” with locals semi-kidding that the piety here is so strong, the church shoots through the Earth itself.
The place is so extensive, we are told, that it encompasses 2,000 chambers on nine levels. Shafts and corridors stretch 300 kilometres. Tourists see something like one per cent of the total.
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